Farewell to Azania’s everyman literary icon Don Mattera

On Monday evening, the coffin bearing the remains of Don Mattera was hoisted into the air before being settled on the shoulders of the men who carried it from his Westbury home and into the waiting hearse, which would shuttle it to the cemetery. 

Mattera was buried in the Muslim tradition on a cold winter Monday night. Because he was a writer who painted with words, I imagined the night funeral under the evocative moon that had watched over him for the 87 years he spent on this earth. 

For many of us who were not at the funeral, perhaps Mattera’s own poetry might take us there. Borrowing from The Sun Has Died, we might imagine him being lowered into the earth.

Trees noticed the sad spectacle

lowered their heads

as tears of leaf fell

from the cheeks of their boughs

Above birds in solemn flight

formed a guard of honour

for the dying monarch

A lark sounded the last post 

and the flag of night was lowered 

as the world covered itself

in the black cloak of mourning… 

Johannesburg, Mattera’s long-term home, was covered in the “black cloak of mourning” on Monday night. On the evening news, his daughter Snowy Mattera tearfully told viewers the family had long resigned itself to sharing their father with the community of Westbury and the world. Both the family and Azania were shrouded in mourning. Under this shroud, Johannesburg created a social media guard of honour for Mattera’s journey into the ancestral realm.

Journalist Fred Khumalo eulogised Mattera and gave a heartfelt tribute on a live social media post. Author Siphiwo Mohala shared his anguish at the loss of a literary icon. From the United States, poet Natalia Molebatsi poured a libation. Academics Tshepo Madlingozi and Simamkele Dlakavu, and filmmaker Sylvia Vollenhoven, shared Mattera’s poems and pictures. Pan Africanist Moemedi Kepadisa wrote movingly about the Azanian love song Mattera was. In Cape Town, his contemporary James Matthews quietly doffed his hat. “A lark sounded the last post.”

Mattera’s artistry, political activism, and sage advice over the years have left an indelible mark in the long night of mourning. In the age of streaming services and fixation with screens and devices, poetry is not as en vogue as it once was. But on Monday night, most people knew who Mattera was. Many mourned and remembered him with touching personal anecdotes. Perhaps the outpouring of love and the deep and wide respect that he garners is testimony to Mattera’s everyman persona, humility and availability. 

Younger people remembered Mattera from poetry sessions in Newtown, middle-aged people recalled his rousingly poetic political speeches in the 1980s, and older people recalled the black consciousness firebrand and writer of the 1970s. 

His memoirs and poetry anthologies told readers about the lost paradise of Sophiatown-Kofifi where he spent his youth — and his gangster period with the Vultures gang — in the 1950s. Most people can identify with parts of Mattera’s story and work. Neighbours in Westbury have lost a patriarch — the Don of Westbury that Snowy, Ted Mattera and their siblings shared with the townships. 

When his sons Malcolm and Giovanni Mattera were born, Mattera wrote a poem for each — At Least and Giovanni. He wrote another for his daughter Noeleen. In their hour of mourning, his family can be comforted by the tender poetry in which he documented his love for them.

But Mattera’s love and commitments extended beyond the family. He immortalised the miners killed at Carletonville with an incendiary poem titled On Reason and Discovery. After Ahmed Timol’s murder at John Voster Square, Mattera comforted his mother: 

Weep, mother Hawa

for the fruit of your womb

fallen from a tree of stone… 

As the last monarch, Donato Francisco Omaruddin Mattera’s legacy is as wide as the ocean. All the tributes that have been orated, written and sung attest to this. But, for this generation, we might single out three things — how Mattera’s life made rubbish of racialisation and apartheid classifications; how he strained against nationalism in favour of a pan-Africanist vision and how his work resonates by calling out inequality and senseless black death in the present.

 He was the grandson of an Italian immigrant and a Xhosa woman. His memoir Memory is a Weapon tells us that his mother was a Motswana. He was brought up in a time before race was solidified by the Group Areas Act. He lived in an area that would be rezoned as a coloured township. A quintessential Johannesburger of a certain era, he spoke all the languages of this province. 

The deadening boundaries and stasis of race could not contain him. He lived, wrote and spoke his way out of race by resisting its parameters. His legacy pulses with a curiosity for life in all its colour and fullness. We have his Azanian Love Song to rouse us out of the stultifying stupor of race laagers. 

The historian of Kofifi was a panAfricanist. He wrote love songs to Zimbabwe and Namibia to celebrate their independence from the yoke of colonial settler governments. Mattera’s freedom dreams spanned beyond national borders and embraced a continental vision of black solidarity and liberty. 

This promiscuous and non-parochial love is a salutary lesson for a restless South Africa intent on keeping Zimbabweans out. Rather than a bogeyman, Mattera saw Zimbabwean well-being as tied to our collective welfare: 

Nana Zimbabwe

It was your dance 

Of daring feet 

Which set the bush ablaze 

Made the dying sweet… 

Mattera favoured Pan Africanist Congress of Azania-aligned politics to the nationalist vision of the ANC. He would not have been happy with Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s conception of home affairs, a corrupted vision obsessed with keeping Zimbabweans at bay. The historian of Kofifi danced for Namibia’s Sam Nujoma and ululated for Maputo and Dar es Salaam. In our long night of mourning, he would urge us to love beyond the Limpopo River. 

We mourn the deaths of young people killed in taverns across the country. Mattera provides companionship to our mourning. He sounds the chilling death bugle.

Death-winds refuse to be gagged

And for me 

The old ordeals will be relived 

Eyes must once more embrace 

The woe of my unfreeness… 

Mattera is our guide as we walk into mortuaries to identify our dead felled by bullets in the country’s townships. In his poem At The Mortuary, he taps into a mournful spirit:

 … the salt you taste 

flows from the eyes of black women 

weeping for their sons 

who fell for a lullabye: 

sweet and low, sweet and low 

deathwind blow, blow 

june is ablaze with bodies that glow 

where the black fireflies go 

ask jesus he might know 

We are rightly bereft. Mattera left his imprint on all aspects of our lives. He was an artist’s artist. He was everyman. We bear him high, and lower our heads, to mark this long night of mourning for one of our finest. We walk through a vale of tears accompanied by the sound of recited poems that bare our keening. The night is filled with wailing now that the Don is gone. As he said on Robert Sobukwe’s death: 

Let no dirges be sung 

no shrines be raised 

to burden his memory 

men such as he 

need no tombstones 

to speak their fame

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Hugo ka Canham
Hugo ka Canham
Hugo ka Canham is an associate professor of psychology at a Johannesburg university. He writes in his personal capacity.

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